Jesus vs. Mosaic Sacrifices


How are the Old Testament Sacrifices in Leviticus 1-7 connected with the atonement of Jesus Christ in the New Testament?


The Old Testament sacrifices, such as those listed in Leviticus 1-7, were symbols of the coming sacrifice of Christ (Heb. 8:5). Those who had faith in God and who rightly practiced the Old Testament sacrifices were forgiven through these sacrifices. But it is important to distinguish between sacrifices as "means" and sacrifices as "grounds" or "merit."

The New Testament emphasizes regularly that Jesus' sacrifice was the only meritorious sacrifice ever offered, and that the Old Testament sacrifices depended on the merit of Christ's then future sacrifice (Col. 2:17; Heb. 8:1-10:22). That is to say, even in the Old Testament, people were forgiven only on the basis of Christ's sacrifice, even though that sacrifice had not been offered yet. When they trusted in God to forgive them, God did so on the grounds that Christ would eventually die for their sin.

Old Testament sacrifices, much as New Testament repentance and confession (1 John 1:9) and the sacraments (cf. WCF 28.6), were means through which God applied forgiveness and salvation to believers. God did not forgive them on the basis of their faith or their faithful practice of the sacrifices, but he forgave through the means of these things.

As the Reformers emphasized, we are justified on the basis of Christ's sacrifice alone, which is credited to us purely on a gracious (not meritorious) basis, and applied to us through means of faith alone. This was true in the Old Testament just as it is true now. But it is also true that certain works are means through which grace is applied to us (such as the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer). It is in this sense that the Old Testament sacrifices functioned: they were means of grace, though which God was pleased to forgive and save the faithful and only the faithful. Faith was necessary if the sacrifices were to be effective, just as faith is now necessary if we are to be forgiven when we confess our sins (we can't simply mouth prayers of confession and be forgiven; cf. Isa. 29:13ff.; Matt. 15:8-9).

Although the specific means of forgiveness differ between the Testaments (e.g., Old Testament sacrifices vs. New Testament sacraments), people have always forgiven on the basis of Christ's atonement, and on that basis alone. But only in the New Testament is that basis revealed to us. This is why the New Testament authors spoke of the Old Testament sacrifices as being shadows or symbols of Christ — they pointed to the greater reality that would be realized in and through Christ.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.